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LinkedIn’s New Network for Teens Is a Wasted Opportunity

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In August, LinkedIn launched University Pages and in September began accepting high schoolers, essentially creating a proto-professional network for teens. University Pages are interactive digital brochures complete with campus news bulletins and a slideshow of notable alumni. High school students are encouraged to share thoughts and questions on college’s pages and to network with graduates. It’s a place to practice resume-hawking beginning at the tender age of fourteen.

The goals of LinkedIn's new teen service is clear: it wants to reel in new users who will eventually develop into job-seeking, LinkedIn adults. But as a contribution to the college admissions landscape, University Pages are problematic. While the service purports to soothe some of the panic of college admissions, it sounds like the college applications themselves, encouraging teens to catalog their projects, awards and honors, clubs, test scores, and courses. “Profiles that are well filled-out get more attention, which can lead to more job opportunities,” one prompt says. The section on test scores urges, “If you’ve excelled at standardized tests or have a stellar GPA, include this on your profile.” It is all clearly geared toward kids who are already well-versed in the game of strategic self-presentation. “When you create your profile, think about establishing your ‘personal brand,’—how you want to be known by others,” another says. In an accompanying video, a narrator tells teens: “Be professional. What you have to say on LinkedIn reflects who you are and where you’re going.”  

For LinkedIn, needless to say, this information is valuable—it could feed algorithms that predict teenagers’ future career success and allow companies to keep tabs on promising prospects. After all, this is a social network that encourages a corporate, soap-scrubbed behavior and, unlike Facebook and Twitter, enforces a culture of careerism. LinkedIn quantifies the rat race. But this is exactly what the current college admissions field doesn’t need. As scholars of education Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson have argued, the kind of behavior LinkedIn asks students to engage in—demonstrating their employability and admissions worthiness in contrast to their peers—exacerbates the inequality faced by students in low income households. The admissions process clearly favors students with the most polished, presentable resumes. LinkedIn mimics the admissions logic compelling students to look good on paper—the same logic that often confuses privilege with accomplishment and rewards achievements that only financial privilege can bring. 

It’s a shame because LinkedIn has an opportunity here to genuinely improve the college admissions experience. The economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery have found that most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to competitive colleges, even though they are well-qualified and even though tuition for competitive schools often, through financial aid, ends up costing less than noncompetitive schools. Most of those students live outside of urban area school zones, so they are not sufficiently exposed to the rigors of selective college recruitment. The exception is bright students who attend large, metropolitan high schools; they enroll in competitive colleges whether they are rich or poor. The key factor is a critical mass of high achievers.

Hoxby and Avery propose two ways to solve the problem, both of which could be implemented by University Pages. Their first would tap into a college’s sprawling alumni network: for students who apply to schools based on their income rather than their aptitude, having a local alumnus from a competitive college as a mentor might encourage them to expand their search. And providing students with customized information about admissions would help reveal the full range of choices available to them. In a follow-up study, Hoxby and Sarah Turner tested this second method and found that concretely presenting low-income, high-achieving students with an array of options made them more likely to enroll in competitive schools. University Pages could be a valuable tool if it evolved from a platform for generic boosterism into a personalized, guided experience for teens.

The kind of data LinkedIn is amassing—both wide-ranging and specific—would make providing customized admissions information low-cost and highly effective. And the company may soon have a massive database at its fingertips that no single university or public institution can access. LinkedIn and its partner schools could also try recruiting alumni to reach out to underprivileged, gifted students. This would help the student networking on University Pages to graduate from mere schmoozing to functional mentorship—and fulfill LinkedIn’s goal of actively engaging new users. These changes would make LinkedIn a force for good in the college admissions process: the first real, democratic portal for students who lack access to fancy college counselors or university-educated family members and are overwhelmed by the admissions maze.

Hamza Shaban writes about web culture and technology.